The highway shimmered in the humid July sun. Ellen walked toward the dirty bus shelter, making for the bench inside. She thought of all the patients whose rooms faced the street, who had an unbroken view of Taschereau Boulevard. A used car lot. The Un seul prix store. Speedy Muffler. Scott’s villa du poulet. Dairy Queen. Ti-Jean. Marche aux puces. Girls! Girls! Girls! Complètement nues! Champion Lanes, with its giant ball and pins, the paint chipped and colour faded long ago.
The Fruits de mer restaurant, with a partially burnt-out cocktail glass in hot pink neon. Bill always laughed at new French words in the early days. All French words were new to Ellen in fifty-one. Fruits de mer was a favourite.
What a great idea! Fruit from the sea! Later, they’d have more than a few laughs over Ellen’s confusion when Mr. Morin had shown them around the furnished room on that first day. Et voice la salle de bain avec la toilette et la douche. Ellen blushed scarlet but neither Bill nor Mr. Morin had noticed.
What’s he talking about, she thought. Is he asking about our sex life? Does he know we’re just dying to get an apartment so we can get to what we didn’t get to when we spent our honeymoon with Bill’s sister and her husband in Halifax? Is it written all over our faces?
The next night, after they’d moved in, they were lying entwined when Ellen told Bill what she’d been thinking.
First Bill had laughed so hard he started to choke and Ellen had to slap him on the back. Bill was already teaching himself French with the Living Language records when he’d met Ellen at the Y dance. He wasn’t much of a dancer but he was good looking—and what a great dresser. Nothing like what he’d become.
There were times when Ellen would wake in the night and forget that Bill was sick. She’d find herself planning the next day—cleaning up, cutting the grass, maybe a trip to Plattsburg in the afternoon. The trips were always fraught with tension. Bill was just like every man she’d ever known in that respect. He hated to admit he didn’t know something and would rather drive fifty miles out of his way than ask for directions. Ellen wished sometimes that theirs could have stayed the kind of marriage where they could laugh about mishaps later, kidding each other as they told their adventures to other couples who were close friends. But instead, the unhappy car trips hung in the air between them, with so much that went unsaid.
Besides, they didn’t have friends you could tell stories to, not really. They knew people from the church and some of the neighbours, but the only couples they knew well were the parents of Brian and Chrissy’s friends. Once the kids had left home, even these connections had gone slack. By the time Bill’s cancer had come to dominate their lives, it was just the two of them again. Sickness wasn’t what Ellen had planned for their future! Who could have imagined that she’d be staring at his yellowed face and shrunken body in a nasty little room at the Charles-Lemoyne Hospital?
Imagine the nurses wanting to know if she’d like to be alone with the body! She didn’t like to say no—maybe you had to stay with the body for a few minutes to make sure he was really . . . No, they knew that. Ellen had almost fainted when the nurse opened the door. It was lucky she was close enough to the wall to support herself. His body seemed half the size of the day before.
Ellen felt tears forcing their way into the corners of her eyes. She swallowed hard and shook her head.
This would not do! “No!” she said aloud. She had so much to take care of, so many things that she needed a clear head for. She couldn’t give in to her feelings now—no, not even now.
A passing ambulance, with sirens wailing, brought Ellen abruptly to her feet. What time is it? Did the bus come and go? She stepped quickly out of the bus shelter and saw a familiar No. 6 come lumbering up the road. It came to a stop in front of her and she pulled herself up the high stairs.
Ellen opened her purse for her bus pass. It wasn’t there. The bus began to move and she stumbled as she searched frantically for the little plastic folder with her picture and the monthly sticker. Yes, it was tucked in the little zippered compartment as it always was. She showed it to the driver, though he barely glanced at it. I’ve seen him a thousand times before so I’m sure he’d recognize me. Do I look different now that I’m a widow? A widow. Black widow. Merry widow. Gold widow. Widow’s weed.
Someone was looking at her, speaking to her. Did I say something? Was I thinking aloud? God, I’m losing my mind.
“Nothing, no, excuse me, pardon.”
Ellen shook her head and gestured that it was nothing. The young woman beside her looked away with a shrug. Ellen looked out the window and saw her stop approaching. She pulled the bell and pushed past her seatmate with a mumbled “excusez-moi.” The tears were standing in her eyes so she tilted her head back to stop the flow. Not now, not now! I must not break down in public. Her only goal was to get off the bus and get home. The driver pulled to a stop and she got out.
Ellen suddenly felt too weary to go on. Home was less than four blocks away but she couldn’t make it. Why did I ever go to the hospital by bus in the first place? A taxi sat in front of the Provigo store, waiting for grocery-laden customers. She cut through the parking lot and approached the car.
“I’m only going to Authur Street—will you take me?” she asked.
“Sure! No problem, lady,” said the driver. He started the engine as Ellen opened the door and got in. She fumbled with the seatbelt while he drove out into the street.
“I can’t get this belt to work,” she said.
“Oh, I don’t know how it works, never sit back there myself,” he said.
He laughed at this.
“It’s just a short ride, you’ll be safe enough.”
“No, I want to do it up. Stop the car. I want to put it on first.”
“O.K., you’re paying, sittin’ or drivin’.”
Ellen couldn’t put the seatbelt together. She pushed the metal clip into the clasp but nothing happened. Near tears again, she slumped to the seat in exhaustion. Her hand banged against the seat and hit something hard—another clasp. She found the clip and fitted them together.
“O.K., I got it,” she cried out excitedly to the driver. Finally, something had worked today! Who would have thought that doing up a seatbelt could give me such a feeling of accomplishment?
“What number on Arthur Street, ma’am?”
The driver caught Ellen’s eye in the mirror.
“Two hundred and fifty,” she answered. “The one with the spruce trees.”
“Nice property,” said the driver. “That’ll be three-fifty.”
Yes, it was a nice property, but how could I ever keep it up now? The same way I have been for the past ten years while Bill was panting and wheezing. I did all the yard work. He was such a sidewalk superintendent! Seems I couldn’t do anything right when it came to the lawn. The time I ran over the extension cord, you’d have thought I’d committed murder. Nosy Fred from across the street had come down from his porch, sweeping the sidewalk, to listen in as we argued. And then I had to race out to Legault before it closed to get a new cord so the lawn could be finished that day. Why did it have to be finished that day anyway?
These things never made sense when you looked back at them. Like the time Brian had offered to cut the grass and Bill had insisted he, not me, would be doing it later. He was so pigheaded! He never would admit he was dying. I’d tried to discuss his funeral arrangements once—God, what a mistake that was! “Take me out with the garbage, he answered, with a sudden burst of anger. I’d laughed if off—what else could I do?—and said that although he’d lost a lot of weight, a garbage bag with him inside was still too heavy for me to lift. Mind you, I would have had just as much trouble with such talk if the tables were turned.
“Lady, are you O.K.?”
The taxi driver stuck his head out of the car window. Ellen realized she had been standing on the sidewalk in a trance.
“I’m fine, thank you,” she said. She crossed the street, opened the door with her key and entered the house. She pulled the door closed behind her and stood for a moment, listening to the silent house. Suddenly, as if stuck by inspiration, she turned quickly and headed down the basement stairs. At the bottom, she stopped to turn on a light and then took a sharp turn to her left. She pushed open a sliding door and entered a small cupboard under the stairs. Cartons of ornaments, winter clothes, and hat boxes were stacked neatly in piles. A branch of an artificial spruce tree poked through the top of a large box. Against the wall sat a blue steamer trunk. Kneeling down in front of it, Ellen undid the clasps and opened the lid. On top lay a bridal headdress with a veil, wrapped in plastic. Beside it was a shoe box, with a silhouette of a stylish woman from the nineteen-fifties printed on the top. Ellen opened the box and took out a packet of letters. She set them on the floor ad reached in again. This time she removed a man’s silk tie. It was royal blue with tiny red geometric shapes. The smooth fabric felt cool against her cheek.
Bill was such a great dresser in the early days. He really used to wow them at the Y dances. He was so unlike all the other ex-servicemen. I had just given one the brush off when he’d asked if I’d like to “shake a leg, baby.” It was just a minute later that Bill walked up. He asked if I could pencil him in on my dance card! Ruby and Dixie burst out laughing! We didn’t have dance cards! Of course I said I was free to dance right away.
He looked so handsome! His suit was the latest fashion, but not flashy like some you saw then. The pants were baggy, but not too baggy, the lapels were wide, but not extremely so. His socks were always the talk of the night: argyle, houndstooth, zigzags—you name it. And the colours that drew stares in those days, with everyone still wearing Depression grey. His hair was styled like Johnnie Ray’s. He looked like such a gentleman. So different from the usual guys looking for a one-night stand.
This was the tie he wore on the night he first walked me to the bus stop. I must take it over to McGillivray’s parlour tomorrow. I know Bill will want to be wearing it for such an important day.
Ellen held the tie at arm’s length. She swallowed hard and wiped her sleeve across her eyes. She quickly put the letters in the shoebox, replaced the box in the trunk, and set the bridal headdress on top. He hesitated for a moment, with her hands still clutching the dusty plastic. With slow and deliberate movements she unwrapped it and removed the fragile lace headpiece. She caressed the delicate flowers that were sewn to it. The gentle sound of falling beads woke her from her reverie. She peered into the gloom of the cupboard, gathering tiny pearls that had scattered across the linoleum. Taking up the plastic wrap, Ellen folded it around the headdress, making a tiny pocket for the pearls. She set the package on top of the trunk and stood up. She stepped out of the cupboard, sliding the door shut behind her.
Ellen moved swiftly across the basement, opened the door of a cabinet, removed three green garbage bags, and went up the stairs to the main floor of the house. Starting in the bathroom, she began filling the first bag. She put in six vials of pills, a Tensor bandage, an inhaler, an electric razor, two cans of shaving cream, and a can of deodorant. She set the bag down and opened the second one.
Ellen crossed to the bedroom, collecting jockey shorts, undershirts, pyjamas, socks, four frayed shirts, two paints of work pants, a pair of slippers, and a ratty bathrobe. Stopping by the bedside, she added a stack of tattered magazines and a pile of handkerchiefs. She set down this bag too and opened the last one.
Ellen went back to the living room next, putting in more magazines and a few paperbacks. From the front hall closet she gathered two pairs of shoes and a trench coat. She set down the third bag in the front hall and returned to the bedroom and bathroom for the other two. She tied two bags tightly with twist-ties and stopped abruptly. She went into the kitchen, retrieved her purse, and opened it, extracting a pair of glasses. She placed the glasses in the third bag and tied it, too.
Propping the front door open with one bag, Ellen carried the other two to the end of the driveway and set them down. She returned to the door, gathered up the last bag, and put it with the others.
As she straightened up, Ellen noticed she was sweating, and she felt a crushing weariness setting over her. She looked down at the garbage bags in wonder.
Where is he now? Where is Bill now?
Her arms hung limply at her sides as the tears rolled down her face.
[Correction: A few proper names, including Living Language, Johnnie Ray, McGillivray, and Tensor, were slightly misspelled in the short story “The Silk Tie,” by Caitlin Smith, from the Christmas, 1997, issue. A few of the French words and names were a bit off, too. Taddle Creek had not yet begun to fact check. Hopefully, the magazine has more than made up for it since. Taddle Creek regrets the error.]